Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat, his wife Madhulika Rawat, an Army Brigadier, and ten others perished when an Indian Air Force (IAF) Mi-17V5 helicopter carrying them crashed into a heavily wooded area of the Coonoor ghat in the Nilgiris in western Tamil Nadu on Wednesday afternoon. The cause of the chopper crash, in which there is only one survivor, is being investigated.
The Coonoor ghat rises steeply from Mettupalayam and the Coonoor river flows through the deep gorge with sheer cliff faces on both sides. Visibility was said to be limited on Wednesday.
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The General was on a visit to Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) in Wellington in the Nilgiris to address the faculty and student officers of the ‘Staff Course’ when the chopper crashed barely 10 km from the landing site at around 12.25 p.m.
Shortly past 6 p.m., the Indian Air Force (IAF) confirmed that General Rawat, his wife and 11 others on board had died.
Group Captain Varun Singh, Directing Staff at the DSSC, who survived with injuries, is under treatment at the Military Hospital, Wellington. He had come to Sulur to receive General Rawat and others.
Late in the evening, the Indian Army confirmed that Brigadier L.S. Lidder, Lieutenant Colonel H. Singh, Wing Commander P.S. Chauhan, Squadron Leader K. Singh, Junior Warrant Officer (JWO) Das, JWO Pradeep A., Havildar Satpal, Naik Gursewak Singh, Naik Jitender, Lance Naik Vivek and Lance Naik S. Teja were the other defence personnel killed in the crash.
Sources said that Wing Commander P.S. Chauhan, Commanding Officer of the 109 Helicopter Unit (the Knights) at Air Force Station, Sulur, and Squadron Leader Kuldeep, piloted the crashed chopper.
The CDS had earlier arrived at the Sulur Air Base around 11.34 a.m. from the Palam Air Base in Delhi in an IAF Embraer aircraft with his wife and personal security officers. At about 11.48 a.m., the Mi-17V5 took off with the nine passengers and five crew members, including a Wing Commander and a Squadron Leader.
As rescue efforts were underway at the crash site, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh briefed the Prime Minister on the situation and directed the IAF chief to visit the crash site. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) met in the evening at 6.30 p.m. and discussed the matter. Mr. Singh will make a statement on the incident in both Houses of the Parliament on Thursday, a defence official said.
General Rawat took over as the first CDS, the senior-most military officer of the country, on January 1, 2020 after serving as the Army chief for three years. The focus now shifts to the appointment of the next CDS.
Locals reach first
Local residents were among the first to learn of the crash and saw the chopper engulfed in flames. Soon, defence personnel, police, and fire and rescue services personnel, aided by civilians, began rescue operations.
Nilgiris Collector S.P. Amrith, Superintendent of Police Ashish Rawat and Inspector General of Police (West Zone) R. Sudhakar rushed to the spot to take stock of rescue efforts.
The lack of a piped water connection to the area hampered efforts to battle the blaze as local residents tried to help with water filled in buckets.
The rescue operation stretched on for three hours. Four persons were pulled out with critical burn injuries and rushed to the hospital. The bodies of the deceased were retrieved with difficulty. The final body was retrieved from the wreckage at 3.30 p.m.
Top military officials visited the spot to ascertain the cause of the incident.
Sources said the Lieutenant Colonel, two Naiks, two Lance Naiks and one Havildar were part of General Rawat’s security protocol. The two JWOs were from Sulur.
PM expresses anguish
Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his anguish over the helicopter crash and the deaths of Gen. Rawat, his wife and other military personnel. “They served India with utmost diligence. My thoughts are with the bereaved families,” he said on Twitter.
Mr. Modi tweeted: “Gen Bipin Rawat was an outstanding soldier. A true patriot, he greatly contributed to modernising our armed forces and security apparatus. His insights and perspectives on strategic matters were exceptional. His passing away has saddened me deeply. Om Shanti.”
In a statement, Army Chief General M.M. Naravane and all ranks of the Army expressed their deepest grief and sorrow over the untimely demise of Gen. Rawat, Mrs. Rawat (president of the Defence Wives Welfare Association), and other military personnel.
Gen. Rawat was a visionary who initiated far-reaching reforms in the Indian military’s higher defence organisation and was “instrumental in creating the foundation of India’s joint theatre commands and giving impetus to the increased indigenisation of military equipment, a legacy which will be carried on and strengthened by successive generations,” the Army statement said.
( Inputs from Dinakar Peri in Delhi )